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Let’s Experiment in EHM: The Alphabet Challenge

This week’s Eastside Hockey Manager experiment is the Alphabet Challenge. A roster where only one player’s last name can come from each letter. The letters ‘N’, ‘Y’, and ‘R’ are not allowed. Read on to see the incredible results.

26 letters, 3 removed to make a 23 man roster. You can guess which ones were not used.
26 letters, 3 removed to make a 23 man roster. You can guess which ones were not used.

My apologies for postponing the EHM Experiments for a week. However, I have had full power through the last week and I was able to plan and execute the planned experiment. This experiment is a simple one in concept and a trickier one in execution. It is the Alphabet Challenge.

This was suggested by kmac6:

Perhaps an alphabet team? Every players last name starts with a different letter of the alphabet.

Definitely possible. Yet, there is a concern with this challenge. The alphabet has 26 letters. NHL rosters are limited to 23 men. I asked kmac6 to remove three letters:

Let’s eliminate N, Y, and R for obvious reasons haha(if X proves to be too much of a headache you can eliminate that letter instead)

I will always try to support the spirit of dismissing Our Hated Rivals. Plus, this makes the challenge a little more difficult. Let us get into it.

The Experiment

Put together a team where every player’s last name begins with a different letter of the alphabet. Do not use players whose names begin with the letters N, Y, or R.

The Approach, The Limitations, & The Team

This is a simple-in-concept and challenging-in-practice experiment. The idea is simple. Yet, trying to fill this out could go in a lot of directions. I cannot ignore the salary cap, which is set at a ceiling of $81.5 million. Spending too much on one player - or one letter - could box me out of better choices for other letters. The risk of spending too much on forwards and not enough on defensemen or goaltenders was real.

There was also the other constraint of the letters themselves. I tried to limit myself to NHL players who played in real life last season. That meant I had few options for the letters ‘U’ and ‘I.’ It also meant I had no options for the letter ‘X.’ Fortunately, this is Eastside Hockey Manager and not NHL Hockey Manager. One of the appeals of this game is that you can play in many different leagues all over the world at varying levels. I searched through the database and, sure enough, I struck gold on a player who is over 18 and has a last name beginning with ‘X:’ center Jordan Xavier.

Per Elite Prospects, Jordan Xavier in real life played for two seasons at University of Alaska-Anchorage (The Seawolves!) and played last season at the University of Calgary (The Dinos!). Absent any better option for any senior player, I gave him a minimum salary contract for one season and made him the first player on the Alphabet Roster. Is he a NHL player? Based on the in-game stats, no:

Jordan Xavier in EHM
Jordan Xavier in EHM

EHM follows the same tradition of Football Manager where all attributes are rated on a scale of 0 through 20. His mental attributes are rather good. However, his technical and physical attributes are just not good. Definitely not up to the standard to play in the NHL. Or even the AHL. While I have not gone through many of these screens since these experiments are more based on seeing what real-life players do in the game, I would guess this may be on par in college. Still, Xavier is going to be in The Show because of his precious ‘X.’ (Note: These attributes do not get much better after training with the Alphabet Devils.)

From there, I decided to focus on the more difficult letters with the help of CapFriendly’s armchair-GM tool to cross-reference cap hits. ‘Z’ was fairly straight forward: Mika Zibanejad would do. For ‘W,’ I took a turn for defense and opted for Zach Werenski. ‘V’ was also easy as Andrei Vasilevskiy was still on his cheap contract. His big extension starts next season. ‘Q’ was initially for Jonathan Quick until I learned from CapFriendly that the only two ‘U’ players were goalies. Quick was out to make room for Linus Ullmark, who is thankfully cheaper than Quick. ‘Q’ came down to deciding between John Quenneville and Alan Quine. I chose Quine. I went back and did the other vowels. Since I was early in the process, I spent big money on Sebastian Aho, Ryan Ellis, and Alexander Ovechkin. For ‘I,’ options were scarce. I decided to go with defenseman Matt Irwin as a #7 guy. Xavier, Quine, and Irwin would be the scratches. My goaltending tandem was set. I was ready to fill out the remainder of the lineup.

The thing with this kind of roster building is that you need to balance the budget too. For example: While there are better ‘B’ players in the game, Mathew Barzal for less than $1 million was too good to pass up. Ditto for the relatively cheap Robert Thomas, Ryan Pulock, Nick Suzuki, Dominik Kubalik, and Cale Makar. The savings with players like those allowed me to splurge more to add Sidney Crosby (Yes, Crosby and Ovechkin. I cackled when I realized that.), Taylor Hall, Roman Josi, and Elias Lindholm. This did mean I had to be a bit more economical for the last few letters, such as ‘G’ and ‘F,’ but I am pleased with who I chose. The roster came together as the following:

Goaltenders (2): Andrei Vasilevskiy, Linus Ullmark

Defensemen (7): Zach Werenski, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Ryan Pulock, Vince Dunn, Cale Makar, Matt Irwin

Wingers (6): Alexander Ovechkin, Taylor Hall, Kevin Fiala, Brendan Gallagher, Dominik Kubalik, Robert Thomas

Centers (8): Sidney Crosby, Sebastian Aho (can play wing), Mika Zibanejad, Mathew Barzal, Nick Suzuki (can play wing), Elias Lindholm (can play wing), Alan Quine (can play wing), Jordan Xavier

I decided to use the New Jersey Devils for the Alphabet team. You can call them the ABC-Devils or the Alphabet Devils. With the latest database, this meant Alain Nasreddine would be the head coach. A number of these players were featured in the WAR-Optimized roster and/or the Under-22 roster, which both dominated. Ovechkin was the ace of the veteran team. Throughout these simulations of 2019-20 in EHM, I kept seeing Suzuki and Kubalik perform really well. So I took a chance on them. With my approach, I ended up quite a bit under the salary cap - about $4 million - so if I needed to make any acquisitions, I could - provided I still met the alphabet requirement. On paper, this team should roll teams over. It is not even optimal as I realized after starting the game that I could have chosen Rasmus Dahlin over Vince Dunn. And I could have made some other adjustments given that I did come under the salary cap by about $4 million. Still, I was really pleased with what I came up with.

The only main concern I would have would be the health of the roster. Quine, Irwin, and especially Xavier would be huge drop offs in talent if they were to be used. If either goalie went down, I would be putting my faith in either Gilles Senn or Zane McIntyre. Further, if I were to make any call-ups, then I could not fit them into the alphabet. I decided that call-ups would be exempted as the ask was to put a 23-man roster together representing 23 letters of the alphabet. Still, injuries could really wreck this team.

Since I learned plenty of my ABCs and phonics and other concepts from Sesame Street among other players, I named my GM after Jim Henson. I launched the game.

After running through the season, I was blown away.

The Experiment Results: The Regular Season

I will not hold you in suspense: This is the greatest team I ever put together in any sports simulation game I ever played. This is easily the best team of all of the EHM Experiments.

Here is a list of all of their losses from the regular season:

  • November 10, 2019 at Vancouver, 3-4
  • January 16, 2020 at Washington, 2-3
  • March 10, 2020 vs. Pittsburgh, 2-3
  • March 17, 2020 at Toronto, 1-2
  • March 26, 2020 at Minnesota, 4-5 (Shootout)

That was it. This team lost five times out of 82 games. Just five times. This team went beyond regulation just six times all season. They won twice in overtime and went 3-1 in shootouts. Yes, this team won 72 games in regulation alone. This team also had a 30 game winning streak, which put them at 45-2 and when it ended. That streak was after their first loss, which ended a 15-game winning streak to start the campaign. They responded with a 21-game winning streak whereupon they secured a playoff spot on February 18 and essentially secured the President’s Trophy before the 21-game run ended in March. They finished at 77-4-1. That is not a mistake. Amazing would be an understatement.

The Alphabet Devils regular season standings.
The Alphabet Devils regular season standings.

Keep in mind that the all-time NHL record for season points percentage earned by a team was 87.5%, which was set by the 1929-30 Bruins. This team soared above their mark. The modern record of regular season dominance was set by the 1976-77 Canadiens, who took 80.2% of the points in an 80-game season. They also set the points record at 132. This team crushed those too by a large margin. The all-time wins record was tied by Tampa Bay last season and initially set by the 1995-96 Red Wings at 62. This team cleared that by 15. Or 12 if you want to remove shootouts for some reason. The Alphabet Devils would have been the greatest team in NHL history, if not hockey history.

These history-makers averaged over 4.8 goals per game, fewer than 2 against per game, allowed fewer than 2,000 shots in the season, and took less than 400 penalty minutes. The PK was the only thing these Devils did not dominate in, but with this roster putting that much effort to control games and light the lamp often, it did not matter. It just did not matter. This team was going to run you over. And heaven help the team who took a major penalty in the first period on a night where the power play was feeling it:

The biggest win of the regular season. Seriously.
The biggest win of the regular season. Seriously.

The players performed at a level I just could not comprehend. Ovechkin performed like he was the second coming of Wayne Gretzky. He did not just get a lot of 8s, 9s, and 10s. He averaged a 9 rating. He scored 50 goals in 60 games. When the goalscoring cooled off, the assists to Crosby, Lindholm, Fiala, and others picked up. He was beyond ridiculous. As were Werenski, who was the only player close to Ovechkin’s average rating throughout most of the season, and Hall, who was absolutely dynamite. Here are the full team’s stats at the end of the season:

The Alphabet Devils skaters by points
The Alphabet Devils skaters by points

Ovechkin led the league in goals and points. Crosby finished second in the league in points. Connor McDavid snuck in at third with 93 to get past Elias Lindholm and Kevin Fiala, who each had 91 and 88 respectively. Lindholm was an utterly fantastic producer at right wing and nearly got to 50 himself. Werenski led all defensemen in scoring with 72 and tied with four others to place 19th in league scoring. What is astounding is that every regular skater achieved at least 20 points. Suzuki, Makar, and Kubalik were all near the top of the rookie scoring chart in the league. An unbelievable season from Victor Olafsson denied them the top spot there. Even Jordan Xavier and his minimal usage earned him ten appearances and three points. He was unhappy from the beginning of the season about his ice time - seriously - but it did not matter. The team kept marching on and everyone contributed. And Ovechkin, Crosby, Lindholm, and Fiala contributed even more than the contributors.

The Alphabet Devils by average rating
The Alphabet Devils by average rating

Normally, having a player averaging an eight throughout the season is fantastic. This team had nine players hit that mark. Among them, seven averaged at least an 8.4 which is totally bonkers. Ovechkin was on another level. When Hall was playing, he was on another level. Werenski, Josi, and Makar were stunning on defense. Crosby was fantastic. Lindholm and Fiala were fantastic. Vasilevskiy was the best goaltender I could ask for with respect to this team. And even the non-eight averaged players were great too. The rookies were wonderful; the depth provided by Barzal, Zibanejad, Dunn, Thomas, and Gallagher was great. Ullmark was a very dine backup. Aho was surprisingly a little low considering his usage but a 7.39 is nothing to sneeze at. The only player who averaged below a seven on the team was the guy I signed out of college to meet the ‘X’ requirement: Jordan Xavier.

By the way, the Alphabet Devils’ top seven were the top seven in average rating for the league. Also, the top 50 cut off at 7.73 so over half of the roster made the league leaders in average rating. Marvelous. Simply marvelous.

The Alphabet Devils goaltenders
The Alphabet Devils goaltenders

And the cherry on top was the goaltending. No, they did not face a lot of shots. The team averaged 23.91 shots against per game, which was by far the fewest in the NHL. Still, they stopped pucks at a great rate. Vasilevskiy was the best goaltender in the NHL and Ullmark was a very good backup. If there was a team that could have won with any goaltending tandem, then it would be this one. But this tandem in particular just added to the awesomeness they spread throughout the league.

Before the experiment, I figured injuries would be the one thing that could derail this team. In a sense, I did not have a rash of injuries. However, there were some notable ones amid minor ones that kept some out for a game or two. Taylor Hall had a partially torn ACL that caused him to miss three months from December 27. 2019. A few weeks later, Ryan Ellis had a partial tear in his MCL that also caused him to miss three months. This meant that Alan Quine and Matt Irwin had to step in to backfill the depth. They were better than I could have expected. Irwin was a solid hand as a third-pairing defender. Unfortunately, he also got injured before Ellis could return so this team handled six or so games of Josh Jacobs. (Aside: Vasilevskiy had a tight groin for a week so Zane McIntyre got a call up, got a win in one game against Vancouver, I leaned on Ullmark for three starts, and McIntyre was then sent right back down. Senn was awful in this simulated season.) Still, Irwin was more than acceptable.

Alan Quine was the unsung hero of this team. Sure, with Ovechkin, Gallagher, and Kubalik at left wing, the position was not in any danger. Quine just needed to not be bad for about ten to eleven minutes per game. Instead, he chipped in. Need a goal around the net? Quine. Get the scoring going early? A few times, it came from Quine and not Ovechkin or Fiala or Lindholm. Before Minnesota could hand the Alphabet Devils a rare ‘L,’ Quine said “Not today,” scored a late equalizer, and the Devils took it in the shootout. In real life, Quine has score 10 goals and 18 assists in his whole NHL career. In this simulation, with only playing fourth line minutes, he put up 14 goals and 12 assists in 55 games. Perhaps I should have taken someone (Kubalik? Barzal as Quine could play center?) out to see if he could have matched his career point totals. Still, Quine was more than just a fill-in. He was a very good one. He did average just under 7.5 in his 55 games, which is excellent. Someone who meshed well with Barzal and Thomas. Someone who meshed well with a star-studded lineup that expected to win most nights and actually did so. I would like to think that the EHM world featured more than a few Devils fans exalting Quine. He deserved the respect.

The Experiment Results: The Playoffs

The Alphabet Devils were absolutely dominant in nearly every definition of the word in the regular season. What about the playoffs? Would a team crack them? Would they have some issues? Roman Josi fractured his arm on the last day of the regular season; would the defense suffer now that every opponent is a quality opponent? Could they get stunned?

No. The answer to all of these questions was no. The Alphabet Devils followed up the greatest regular season in NHL history with the greatest playoff run in NHL history. They did what the War Optimized team could not do. They swept the playoffs. 16 games, 16 wins. And all in regulation too.

The perfect playoff tree
The perfect playoff tree

The first victim was Philadelphia. This was refreshing to me as it was not Our Hated Rivals sniping an eighth seed on the last day of the season as they have done in these experiments. The games went 2-0, 5-1, 6-2, and 4-2. Of note, I put Ullmark in as the starter in Game 4 to ensure he had a playoff appearance. It went well. I still went back to Vasilevskiy for Round 2.

The second victim was Pittsburgh. The Pens did get one of those rare wins over the Alphabet Devils. They would not get one in this series. Game 1 was an emphatic 7-2 beatdown. Game 2 was a 3-0 shutout. At the Paintcan, the Alphabet Devils won Game 3 with a 6-2 result and Game 4 with a 4-1 result. Thank you, next.

The third victim was Buffalo, who had a remarkably good season. EHM may not be a truly accurate simulation as the Sabres are well-run in the game. Nevertheless, the Devils ran them over too. Game 1 was a 6-1 romp. For Game 2, I decided to put in Quine and Xavier to ensure they would get a playoff appearance in this run. Somehow, they did not get on the scoresheet in a 9-2 smackdown of the Sabres. I took them out for Game 3, which was a less out-of-hand 4-1 win. It also featured a start for Ullmark as Vasilevskiy had a minor jaw injury that thankfully did not require a lengthy layoff. (For the EHM players, he had the orange ‘inj’ status and not the red ‘inj’ status.) The sweep came with a 5-2 win.

The final victim was Colorado. They went through a lot against a stupidly-good Vancouver team to win a seven-game series for the Clarence Campbell trophy. The Alphabet Devils had to wait on them. Maybe they could catch them early. Nope. A 4-2 win in Game 1 where the Devils flipped the script from a 1-2 deficit after the first period said otherwise. In Game 2, Vasilevskiy was perfect as the Avs could not handle Aho, Ovechkin, or Hall. After that 4-0 win, the Devils sought to do it again in Denver for Game 3. They did. They won 4-0 where Crosby, Lindholm, and Barzal struck for goals. Colorado would finally beat Vasilevskiy in the crease in Game 4, ending an eight-period shutout streak early in the first. Ovechkin tied it up late in the period and the Devils blew them away in the second with goals from Fiala, Barzal, and Hall. While Colorado made a late charge with two quick goals, Hall secured the game and the Cup with the empty netter. The Devils won 5-2 to complete four straight sweeps. I loved it. The Devils fans in the game loved it. The late Moses Malone would have loved it. Social media would have been bitter but who cares about them? The Alphabet Devils followed up the greatest regular season ever with a perfect playoff run.

The Alphabet Devils playoff stats for skaters
The Alphabet Devils playoff stats for skaters

With only 16 games, it is not easy to amass the points. But Taylor Hall, Sebastian Aho, and Kevin Fiala did it. Funnily enough, they were the second line when Hall returned. The top line of Crosby, Ovechkin, and Lindholm was somewhat kept in check. By no means they were bad, but the Aho line was head and shoulders above everyone else. Still, similar to the regular season, just about everyone contributed to the scoring. It was nice to see Zibanejad and Barzal produce a bit more as well as seeing Gallagher shine amid a strong lineup.

Compared to the rest of the league, the lack of games played by New Jersey meant that the Hall-Aho-Fiala line owned just the top three spots among playoff scorers. Werenski, Makar, and Gallagher followed suit from #9 to #11 in the league. No matter, the job was definitely done.

By the way, Vasilevskiy posted a 93.9% save percentage in the postseason with four shutouts. Ullmark posted a 90.7% in his two starts with just four goals allowed. It is so great to have great goaltending.

The Alphabet Devils average ratings in the playoffs.
The Alphabet Devils average ratings in the playoffs.

Hall was Ovechkin-like in the postseason with his average rating of nine. Ovechkin himself was also fantastic with his 8.75. And Werenski was such a boss given his 8.81 rating. Surprisingly, Dunn is up here. While Josi was out with the fractured arm, he took on his minutes while Irwin backfilled his role. Dunn was sensational. Alas, when Josi returned, I had to put him back - but still it was a great playoffs. Similar to the regular season, there were just about no passengers. The lack of injuries meant limited time for Irwin (8 games before Josi returned), Quine, and Xavier. Still, everyone was great. Just like with the regular season, this squad dominated the top 50 average ratings in the playoffs for the league too.

The Experiment Results: The Awards

The Alphabet Devils won the Stanley Cup. The executive board was delighted throughout the season and kept informing Mr. Henson of that after every big win over a “big team” or a rival. They were also delighted with the Cup win. But the winning did not end there. The Alphabet Devils dominated the player of the month awards (only one non-Devil won it), rookie of the month (mostly Makar), defensive player of the month (a mix of Vasilevski, Werenski, and Josi), and offensive player of the month (a mix of Ovechkin, Hall, and Fiala). The season awards would be similarly owned by the New Jersey ABC-Devils.

  • Art Ross Trophy: Ovechkin (126 points). Runners-up: Crosby (107), McDavid (93)
  • Rocket Richard Trophy: Ovechkin (59 goals). Runners-up: Lindholm (47), Landeskog (44)
  • Ted Lindsay Trophy: Werenski. Runners-up: Ovechkin, Josi
  • Norris Trophy: Josi. Runners-up: Werenski, Makar,
  • Vezina Trophy: Vasilevskiy. Runners-up: Murray, Andersen
  • William Jennings Trophy: Vasilevskiy & Ullmark
  • Calder Trophy: Makar. Runners-up: Q. Hughes, Olofsson
  • Lady Byng Trophy: Fiala. Runners-up: Lindholm, Pastrnak
  • King Clancy Trophy: Ovechkin. Runners-up: Werenski, Josi
  • Jack Adams Award: Nasreddine. Runners-up: Travis Green, Jared Bednar
  • GM of the Year: Henson. Runners-up: Jim Benning, Joe Sakic
  • Hart Trophy: Josi. Runners-up: Ovechkin, Landeskog
  • Conn Smythe Trophy: Hall. Runners-up: Fiala, Aho
  • NHL First All-Star Team: Ovechkin-Crosby-Lindholm, Josi-Werenski, Vasilevskiy
  • NHL Second All-Star Team: Landeskog-Draisaitl-Fiala, Makar-Reilly, Murray
  • NHL Rookie All-Star Team: Kubalik-Suzuki-Olofsson, Makar-Q. Hughes, Blackwood

The in-game media voted for a ton of Devils. The only awards they did not compete for was the nonsense Mark Messier Leadership Award (won by Zetterberg), the NHL All-Star Game MVP (won by Matthews, Devils sent Ovechkin, Crosby, Josi, and Vasilevskiy), and the Masterton (won by Forsberg). It was confusing to see Josi win the Norris over Werenski and the Hart over Ovechkin. It was very pleasing to see that eight Devils made the two All-Star teams, including the entire First All-Star team. I also enjoyed seeing Fiala get his due through a Lady Byng trophy, Hall rightfully getting the Conn Smythe (I would have thought Vasilevskiy would have been a finalist), and Kubalik and Suzuki making the Rookie All-Star team.

Experiment Conclusions

It could be argued that this was not the best possible alphabet roster. I took Dunn instead of Dahlin. I did not cap out. I could have gone down a very different path if I went through the letters differently. I could have chosen a different team, which would have had a better coaching staff than one led by Alain Nasreddine. I could have taken kmac6’s out to remove letters that were tough to fit in like ‘X’ and ‘U.’ And I do not care. This roster went 77-4-1 in an 82-game season (and without Hall and Ellis for three months) and 16-0 in the playoffs. The players earned a lot of individual awards on top of the Stanley Cup. The ABC-Devils were a glorious mix of the best parts of past experiments and observations from those experiments. This was the best performance by roster I ever put together in any sports simulation game.

Sure, improvement could still be made. The team did not go 82-0-0. However, is that worth pursuing? Would it be significantly better than the Alphabet Devils? I do not know. And I do not think it is worth the effort. To that end, this experiment was a total success.

What’s Next & Your Take

Thank you again to kmac6 for the suggestion to take on the Alphabet Challenge.

What is next for EHM Experiments will be a surprise. I have to dig back to see what other suggestions have been made. There is one idea that I have, but I need to see if it would work in the game. It would not be NHL-related. It would be a nice change of pace, too. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I want to know what you think of the Alphabet Devils. Did you expect the ABC-Devils to be so dominant? Please let me know in the comments. If you have any additional suggestions for future EHM experiments, then please leave those in the comments too. Thank you for reading.